David Bell Birney (1825-1864)
David Bell Birney (May 29, 1825 - October 18, 1864) was a businessman, lawyer, and a Union general in the American Civil War.
Birney was born in Huntsville, Alabama, the son of an abolitionist from Kentucky, James G. Birney. His family moved to Cincinnati, where his father published a newspaper, then to Michigan, and finally to Philadelphia. After graduation from Andover Academy, Birney entered business, studied law, and was admitted to the bar. He moved back to Philadelphia, practicing law from 1856 until the outbreak of the Civil War.
Birney entered the Union army just after Fort Sumter as lieutenant colonel of the 23rd Pennsylvania Infantry regiment, a unit he raised largely at his own expense. Just prior to the war he had been studying military texts in preparation for such a role. He was promoted to colonel on August 31, 1861, and to brigadier general on February 17, 1862, clearly benefitting from political influences, not military merit.
He commanded a brigade in Philip Kearny's division of the III Corps, which he led through the Peninsula Campaign. At the Battle of Seven Pines he was accused of disobeying an order from his corps commander, Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman, allegedly for "halting his command a mile from the enemy." But this was simply a matter of orders misunderstood. He was court-martialed, but with strong positive testimony from Kearny, was acquitted and restored to command.
Birney fought at the Second Battle of Bull Run in support of John Pope's Army of Virginia. When Kearny was killed in that battle, Birney took over command of his division.
Stationed in Washington, D.C., he missed the Battle of Antietam, but his division returned to the Army of the Potomac to fight at Fredericksburg. There, he once again encountered military discipline problems, this time for allegedly refusing to support George G. Meade's division's attack on the left flank of the Union line. However, he was complimented in III Corps commander George Stoneman's official report for "the handsome manner in which he handled his division" on that same day. So for a second time he escaped punishment.
Birney led his division in heavy fighting at Chancellorsville, where he suffered more casualties (1,607) than any other division in the army. As a result of his distinguished service at Chancellorsville, he received a promotion to major general on May 20, 1863.
At the Battle of Gettysburg, the III Corps commander was the notorious Daniel Sickles. On July 2, 1863, Sickles insubordinately moved his corps from its assigned defensive position on Cemetery Ridge. Birney's new position was from the Devil's Den, to the Wheatfield, to the Peach Orchard, part of a salient directly in the path of the Confederate assault, and it was too long a front for a single division to defend. Assaulted by the divisions of John Bell Hood and Lafayette McLaws, Birney's division was demolished. Army commander Meade rushed in reinforcements, but the line could not hold. His division and the entire corps were finished as a fighting force. As Birney watched the few survivors of his division gather about him on Cemetery Ridge, he whispered to one of his officers, "I wish I were already dead." Sickles was grievously wounded by a cannonball and Birney assumed temporary command of the corps, despite having received two small wounds himself. He retained command until February, 1864.
Birney started in the Overland Campaign as a division commander in the II Corps, his III Corps having been reorganized out of existence that spring. After good service in the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House (where he was wounded by a shell fragment), and Cold Harbor, on July 23, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant gave Birney command of the X Corps in the Army of the James. However, during the Siege of Petersburg, Birney fell ill with malaria (some accounts say dysentery and typhoid fever). He was ordered home to Philadelphia, and died three months later. He is buried there in Woodlands Cemetery.
David Birney was one of the more successful "political generals" of the Civil War. Many of his colleagues resented his swift rise in the ranks and he was not a beloved figure with them or his soldiers. Theodore Lyman of Meade's staff wrote of Birney:
"He was a pale, Puritanical figure, with a demeanor of unmoveable coldness; only he would smile politely when you spoke to him. He was spare in person, with a thin face, light-blue eye, and sandy hair. As a General he took very good care of his Staff and saw they got due promotion. He was a man, too, who looked out for his own interests sharply and knew the mainspring of military advancement. His unpopularity among some persons arose partly from his own promotion, which, however, he deserved, and partly from his cold covert manner."